[Interview] Filmmaker Jacob Chase creates “compassionate horror” with ‘COME PLAY’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Back in 2017, filmmaker Jacob Chase released his five-minute short LARRY, which shows a creepy monster whose presence is summoned through a children’s storybook on an e-tablet, harassing a poor tollbooth operator one dark, spooky night. Three years later, the affable auteur and his monstrous creation are back with COME PLAY. The feature-length iteration revolves around a family going through a rough patch and their not-so-friendly encounter with the 10-foot-tall skeletal creature when he starts troubling 8-year-old autistic son Oliver (Azhy Robertson) for the purpose of friendship.

Since this began as a short, had you envisioned that as a proof of concept knowing you’d springboard it into a feature? Or was the short just always going to be its own thing?

When I made the short, I did not have any idea for the feature. I wanted to make something that was atmospheric and creepy. I shot it over Halloween one year and it really just came from me wanting to make something with my friends. I had been making short films for years and years on the side as I was writer to continue to prove myself a filmmaker. It was just another one of those. I wanted to prove to people I could do this. And when people at the studios approached me and were interested in turning it into a feature, I figured out really quickly what the feature would be.

What were some of the challenges in adapting the short?

I treated the short film as, “Hey, that could be a scene in the movie,” but there’s no character other than Larry, who you get to know as a monster. It was expanding on what this monster’s powers were and what he wanted. And also diving into this idea of connection and loneliness and wanting a friend and creating a family at the center of the story who would be the most interesting person to be combatting Larry and those who might have it the worst. So creating a character who needs his devices to communicate with the world felt like someone I’d be invested in in a horror film seeing them go through this horror of being contacted by Larry.

Since Oliver is a character who has nonverbal autism, what research did you do writing the role and what homework did you give Azhy Robertson to do?

There was a ton of homework. Luckily the kid likes schoolwork. He was somebody, when we cast him, who had so much empathy in him already towards kids who were different from him, which I appreciated and thought was important. In the writing process, I had already done a ton of research. My wife works with kids on the spectrum so I’ve had a window into that world for many years. But, of course, I did a deep dive. I met with speech therapists, early interventionists, play therapists, a whole bunch of kids on the spectrum and adults as well. For instance, this one wonderful young man Sam, who had nonverbal, like Oliver when he was Oliver’s age, he was someone I really leaned on to read the scripts and give me notes on what I was getting wrong or right.

When Azhy was cast, we went through that who process again. I had him meet and talk to a bunch of people. He shadowed kids on the spectrum. He worked with a movement coach. We constantly were checking ourselves and being as authentic as we could while also understanding that once you know one kid on the spectrum, everyone is so different. We were trying to be consistent to the character we created with Oliver.

There’s of course some CG involved in the film, but there’s a lot more practical effects used. Can we talk a little about that?

Larry is primarily a big, 10-foot-tall puppet that the Jim Henson Creature Shop created. It was very important for me going into this to create the most authentic reactions from both the kid actors and the adults. To have something on set for them to play off of was going to be extremely important. At the same time, the movie has so much technology with the screens and stuff, that the last thing I wanted was for when we get to see Larry, for that to be more technology. I wanted him to be as real and tactile as possible. It led to a lot of challenges on set – a lot of heavy planning, which luckily I’m a big story boarder and like to plan ahead. But once the puppeteers were able to get in and rehearse, we were able to have these amazing sequences where everyone is interacting with each other and he’s another actor that you’re working with on the set.

What sort of direction did you give your sound design team to create the sound of Larry, with his wheezing and bone-cracking?

It’s something they worked really hard on. My direction was less about making him creepy. Of course we wanted him creepy and full of fear when we’re hearing him. But the bigger thing for me was that he was pained moving around – like it was difficult for him to walk around. That his wheezing, moaning and cries were something were emblematic of his internal desire – his need for friendship, companionship. I’d imagine he’s been in this lonely, dark place. So every sound, I urged them to make it feel like this was the kind of sounds that almost make you feel bad for somebody. The sound went a long way in creating this strained empathy I was looking for with Larry.

Gillian Jacobs (left) stars as ‘Sarah’ and Azhy Robertson (right) stars as ‘Oliver’ in writer/director Jacob Chase’s COME PLAY. Credit : Jasper Savage / Amblin Partners / Focus Features

How did you collaborate with composer Roque Baños and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre to create a spooky atmosphere and balance the composition of the scares?

As with everything in the movie, there’s this delicate balance we were trying to walk between the horror and the suspense and also the heart and family dynamic of the film. Roque, for him, I knew his horror stuff would be great. I had known him from EVIL DEAD and DON’T BREATHE. He’s got these great horror scores in his past, but what I was urging him to do was lean into the heart and magic of it as well. Some of my favorite pieces in the movie are those family heartfelt moments – the emotional cues – he was able to create that break my heart. It was a fun collaboration of riding that line in the right way.

And same with Maxime. He’s known for so many wonderful horror films, but for this, we talked a lot about isolation and keeping characters in frames within frames so you feel their loneliness. Whether that be putting a character in a parking shack in a large lot, or putting Oliver in a doorway down the hallway, those are the things that make you feel aligned with them. At the same time, Larry’s a creature who you can’t always see unless you were using your devices. We were always conscious of the negative space in frames so it felt like Larry could be around every corner, or standing right next to you and you don’t know it.

Was it difficult to get the rights to SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS and was it always that in the script?

It was always SPONGEBOB in the script. I sorta had ideas in the back of my head just in case, but I was desperate for it to be SpongeBob. In a lot of my research with kids on the spectrum, SpongeBob kept coming up as the fan favorite. A lot of kids on the spectrum tend to find TV shows, or YouTube channels, that they relate to and watch a lot. In some ways, it can be helpful for parents to use to communicate with their kids. So it was important to me for the realism of the world.

Once we approached Nickelodeon about SpongeBob, I had this big full-court press, talking them through what I wanted to do with it for the film. Once they realized how important it is for this kid on the spectrum, they know how their show is to that community, so it became something they were on board with. I was able to use as this fun juxtaposition… like I see Oliver like he has a lot of the same traits as SpongeBob. They’re both very well-meaning. They both have no guile. They both see the best in people. I thought it was a great way to endear us to the character.

There’s a scene that plays a bunch of movie clips edited together to form a few sentences. How challenging was it for you and your editor to get all those millisecond clips together to form something coherent?

That was probably the most difficult sequence of the entire movie, actually. It was the last thing we finished. The last thing the effects were able to do because it took so long to get all the rights to those clips. In the script, I had written all those things I needed them to say. So from the time I wrote the script, before production even, we started hunting out for what those clips would be and it took however many months of shooting and then in post to get them all. Our poor assistant editors who worked hard on this, who had to go through oodles and oodles of clips to find the one word someone says in a clear way without music behind it, that we could also license. I mean, yeah [laughs]. It was kind of a nightmare.

Do you keep in mind the film’s target audience when you’re writing a family-focused horror movie, balancing the light and the dark moments?

In terms of tone, to be honest, I didn’t think of the target audience so much as just wanting to create something authentic and real. So many of my favorite films growing up ride that line of dark and light: JAWS, E.T., JURASSIC PARK. Those are all films that are both pretty scary, but have a lot of heart and compassion. They aren’t mean-spirited. I was trying to make something that was equally not mean-spirited. When Steven Spielberg saw my first cut, he walked into the edit and said, “You made a new genre of moviemaking. It’s compassionate horror,” which I don’t know if it’s a new genre, but appreciate the comment.

COME PLAY opens in theaters on October 30.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.